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There are a few holiday traditions my family upholds with religious vigor. Every St. Patrick’s Day, we bust out the guitars and bodhráns and play Irish music. Every Christmas Eve, we watch Jaws. (I think it’s a New England thing?) And every Halloween, we carve pumpkins.
Alas, there is another Halloween tradition I have upheld over the years pretty much on my own. It is a tradition that only my wife knows about, and she has diligently kept my secret. But now I feel compelled to share it with you, dear reader. So here it goes….
Every Halloween, I make it a point to watch Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.
Woo! I’m glad to get that off my chest.
There’s just something about that movie — the set design, the campy acting, the dim, goosebump-inducing, ghost-around-every-corner lighting. And, of course, there’s the headless horseman, portrayed by a pointy-toothed Christopher Walken.
One of the most feared characters from American literature, the headless horseman sprung from the imagination of writer, historian, and diplomat Washington Irving, appearing in his short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which in turn appeared in his essay and short story collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (published serially between 1819 and 1820). You gotta love this description:
“Gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless! But his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle!”
source: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow“
But as some of you may already know, the idea of a demonic, decapitated figure riding around on horseback, terrorizing the townsfolk, did not originate with Irving.
For example, there’s Hans Jagenteufel of Brothers Grimm fame. Dressed in grey and riding a grey horse, the headless man appears to a woman in the woods who is gathering acorns. He warns her not to take what is not hers, lest she end up like him — a spirit cursed to wander the world as a punishment for his past misdeeds.
Then there’s the Green Knight of Arthurian legend, a giant of a man who dresses in green and rides a green horse. Upon arriving at King Arthur’s court on New Year’s Eve, he challenges anyone brave enough to take a swing at him with an axe, under the condition that a year later he be allowed to return the favor. Sir Gawain accepts and unceremoniously lops off the Green Knight’s head. Here’s where things get creepy (or creepier): the Green Knight calmly retrieves his head and rides away, saying (paraphrasing), “See you next year, Gawain old buddy old pal.”
But according to the internet, there is one headless horseman who rules them — the one whom Irving clearly turned to for inspiration. It’s not a horseman clad in grey, nor a horseman clad in green, it’s a horseman clad head-to-toe in black, who rides upon a black steed…
Meet the Dullahan, Ireland’s Headless Horseman
Known in Irish as the Dulachan, the Dullahan is a headless horseman who rides a headless horse. With his whip, he takes out the eyes of anyone who sees him. This, according to historian Peter Berresford Ellis, who goes on to write that the Irish headless horseman’s story is explored further in later folk tales, where he appears as a “malicious spirit.”
And that’s it. That’s all Ellis tells us about the Dullahan in his Dictionary of Irish Mythology. Fortunately, other sources shed more light on this dark figure.
A common embellishment is to give the Dullahan not just a whip, but a whip made from a human spinal cord. There’s also the recurring detail that despite being decapitated, the so-called “headless” horseman retains his head, carrying it under his arm. And as noted by the Irish Times, ’tis not a pretty sight, that detached head of his.
The flesh of the face is decayed, with the specific (and slightly odd) reference to the consistency of the flesh being akin to mouldy cheese recurring in many tellings of the tale.
One of the earliest printed references to the Dullahan occurs in Thomas Crofton Croker’s 1825 work, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, which was later translated into German by the Brothers Grimm. In it, Croker explains that the name “Dullahan,” “Dulachan,” or “Durrachan,” as the “goblin” is known in some places, signifies “a dark sullen person.” It’s possible the name comes from dorr or durr, meaning anger, or durrach, meaning malicious or fierce. However, Croker casts doubt on that last bit of etymology, noting that black (dubh) “is evidently a component part of the word.”
The greater revelation found in Croker’s work is that the Dullahan, much like the banshee or Grim Reaper, is an omen of death. Specifically, the Dullahan commands the “Death Coach,” better known as the “Coach a bower” in Ireland. W.B. Yeats builds upon Croker’s characterization in his 1888 collection, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, but in his version the Dullahan isn’t simply similar to the banshee, he’s her accomplice.
An omen that sometimes accompanies the banshee is the coach-a-bower (cóiste bodhar) – an immense black coach, mounted by a coffin, and drawn by headless horses driven by a Dullahan. It will go rumbling to your door, and if you open it, according to Croker, a basin of blood will be thrown in your face. These headless phantoms are found elsewhere than in Ireland. In Norway the heads of corpses were cut off to make their ghosts feeble. Thus came into existence the Dullahans …
Was the Dullahan Really the *First* Headless Horseman?
As Yeats alludes to above, headless horsemen are not strictly an Irish phenomena. Which begs the question: why do so many people seem to think that the Dullahan was the first and that Washington Irving’s headless Hessian horseman was based on him?
To quote the Books Are Our Superpower blog: “The earliest ‘Headless Horseman’ figure that can be identified is the Dullahan.”
To quote The Irish Place blog: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in America is based on this Irish legend.”
And to quote The Irish Times: “The most famous and lasting iteration of the Dullahan figure must be the headless horseman featured in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
From everything I’ve read, the Dullahan is a folkloric or legendary figure — not a mythic one. And while that may sound like semantics, the Dullahan’s absence from mythology tells us he was likely a later invention (just as Ellis suggests in his Dictionary). But that hasn’t stopped Dullahan superfans from trying to connect him to more ancient Irish characters.
For example, Wikipedia dubiously conflates the Dullahan with Gan-Ceann, a member of the aes sídhe whose name translates to “without a head.” In Irish mythology, the aes sídhe, or “people of the hills,” are amongst the oldest of the Irish gods. They’re driven underground following the Milesian invasion and reenter the popular imagination as fairies. It’d be a huge boon to the Dullahan’s credentials if he were, indeed, Gan-Ceann. But a quick glance at Gan-Ceann’s biography proves this is not the case.
As Ellis notes, Gan-Ceann is the personification of day-dreaming. Also known as a “love-talker,” he “fill[s] girls’ heads with pleasant fantasies when they should be working.” That’s about as different from the Dullahan, a harbinger of doom, as one can get. And once you know that Gan-Ceann has a penchant for filling minds with fluff, it becomes clear that the meaning of his name, “without a head,” is a metaphorical reference, not a literal one.
Then there’s the theory — put forth in the Irish Times, among other places — that the Dullahan is the embodiment of the fertility god Crom Dubh. Worshipped as an idol in Connacht and Munster until the arrival of St. Patrick, who put the kibosh on that type of thing, Crom Dubh is said to have demanded human sacrifices in the form of — you guessed it — decapitation. When he’s no longer able to receive these sacrifices, a frustrated Crom Dubh takes to the roads, “calling the names of those doomed to die, and carrying his head under his arm.” (source: Irish Times)
To me, this conflation/origin makes a lot more sense than the Gan-Ceann one. However, it should be noted that Crom Dubh himself is a reimagining of/spiritual successor to an earlier Irish god, Cromm Crúaich. This doesn’t invalidate the Dullahan connection, I just want to make sure the chain of custody is clear. Cromm Crúaich is mentioned in the 12th century Book of Leinster, and also appears (as Cenn Cruach) in the hagiography the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick, which could date back to as early as the 9th century.
Here’s the thing though: even if it can be proved that Crom eventually became the Dullahan, there are no references to him being a “headless horseman” in those 9th and 12th century texts. Thus, the character did not truly emerge until much later… which makes it seem as though the Green Knight, who appeared in the chivalric poem “Gawain and the Green Knight” in the 14th century, might be able to claim seniority. So maybe the headless horseman wasn’t an Irish invention after all — maybe it came from Britain?
Not so fast.
It turns out that the whole you-chop-my-head-with-an-axe-then-I-chop-yours game featured in the Arthurian legend first appeared in an Irish myth. The story, “Bricriu’s Feast” (“Fled Bricrenn”), dates back to the 8th century and is preserved in the 11th-century text, The Book of the Dun Cow. In it, the trickster Bricriu promises the hero’s portion of his feast to three different warriors, Cú Chulainn, Conall Cernach, and Lóegaire Buadach. Their pride (and rumblings stomachs) on the line, the warriors engage in a series of contests.
When a giant arrives wielding an axe, the stakes are raised considerably. The giant challenges the warriors to take a swing at him with the axe, on the condition that he be able to return the favor. (Sound familiar?). Conall Cernach strikes the first blow, lopping off the giant’s head. The giant scoops up his head, puts it back on his neck, and leaves. When he returns to take his turn, Conall has fled. The same scenario plays out with Lóegaire Buadach, who cuts off the giant’s head but flees before the giant can return the favor.
Only Cú Chulainn is brave enough to play the giant’s game to completion. He chops of the giant’s head, the giant returns, and Cú Chulainn places his own head on the chopping block, preparing for the inevitable. Twist! The giant is really the wizard Cú Roi in disguise. And instead of chopping off Cú Chulainn’s head, he proclaims his the first hero of Ulster.
So Who Is Sleepy Hollow’s Headless Horseman Based On?
Most scholars agree that “Gawain and the Green Knight” was inspired, at least in part, by the Irish story “Bricriu’s Feast.” So even though we can’t say definitively that the Dallahan is the oldest representation of the headless horseman, it’s clear that the Irish were pioneers of literature’s headless-evil-spirit trend. And when you consider that the ancient Irish, like other ancient Celtic peoples, believed the soul to be contained within the head (and not within the heart), this actually makes a lot of sense: of course their most malevolent demons would be headless.
But just because the Irish were pioneers of the genre, there’s no proof that Washington Irving himself turned to Irish stories for inspiration when crafting “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In fact, the available evidence suggests he looked elsewhere.
For starters, there’s history. In Irving’s story, he describes the headless horseman as “the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried off by a cannon-ball in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War.” The Hessians, for those who don’t know, were German mercenaries whom the British hired to fight against the rebelling American colonists. And while the Hessian-beheaded-by-cannonball story might sound like an extravagant bit of American fiction, The New York Historical Society has found evidence to the contrary.
A shot from the American cannon at this place [White Plains] took off the head of a Hessian artillery man.source: The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Major General William Heath
White Plains, New York, FYI, is located less than ten miles from Tarrytown, home of Washington Irving and the setting of his famous tale. (The village of Sleepy Hollow was originally incorporated as North Tarrytown.)
Of course, a decapitated Hessian soldier is one thing; an undead decapitated Hessian soldier who rides around with his head on his saddle, terrorizing superstitious schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, is another thing entirely. The leap from one to the other likely required a bit more inspiration. Fortunately for us, when we consider that Irving was traveling around England when he wrote “Sleepy Hollow,” numerous potential sources of such inspiration can be found.
Exhibit A: Irving was an American citizen, but his parents came from Cornwall, a county steeped in Celtic culture. So steeped, in fact, that Cornwall is considered to be one of the Celtic nations (alongside Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, and the Isle of Man). Now, according to Croker, there were several Dullahan-like demons reported to be trotting about Britain, including the English “Spectator” and the Welsh “Fenyw heb un pen” (the headless woman) who rides “Ceffyl heb un pen” (the headless horse). Is it possible that there is also a Cornish Dullahan equivalent, and that Irving learned about it from his parents?
While we can only speculate as to the latter, we don’t have to speculate about the former: Cornwall has its own headless coachman who, according to legend, pulls into the courtyard of The Molesworth Arms hotel every New Year’s Eve — yes, New Year’s Eve (the same day the Green Knight arrived in Camelot). Situated in Wadebridge, The Molesworth Arms got its start as a 16th-century coaching inn, so, timing-wise, it’s possible Irving’s parents were around to learn about this Cornish Dullahan figure. But admittedly, this theory is pretty thin.
Exhibit B: Here, we find a much more likely source of inspiration for the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow. While traveling in England, Irving became buddy-buddy with fellow writer Sir Walter Scott. It’s likely the pair discussed Scott’s 1796 work, The Chase, which is a translation of Gottfried August Bürger’s German poem, Der Wilde Jäger (The Wild Huntsman). To quote historian Elizabeth Bradley of Historic Hudson Valley:
Irving had just met and become friends with Scott in 1817 so it’s very likely he was influenced by his new mentor’s work. The poem is about a wicked hunter who is doomed to be hunted forever by the devil and the ‘dogs of hell’ as punishment for his crimes.source: History.com
What is particularly interesting about this revelation is that the original German poem on which Scott’s work is based, The Wild Huntsman, is believed to be rooted in Norse mythology. And what was that excerpt from W.B. Yeats’s collection of fairytales and folktales I mentioned earlier?
These headless phantoms are found elsewhere than in Ireland. In Norway the heads of corpses were cut off to make their ghosts feeble. Thus came into existence the Dullahans …source: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
What do we make of this?
Did Norse mythology influence Celtic and Irish mythology, in addition to (indirectly) influencing Irving? Or did Celtic and Irish mythology influence Norse mythology, which then went on to influence Irving? There is, of course, another explanation:
Mythologies from different cultures arrive at similar stories and characters independently. It happens all the time. Why? Because there are certain experiences and anxieties that spring universally from the human condition. With the headless horseman archetype, that “universal” is the fear of the past coming back to haunt us. To quote Gothic studies professor Franz Potter:
The headless horseman supposedly seeks revenge—and a head—which he thinks was unfairly taken from him. This injustice demands that he continually search for a substitute. The horseman, like the past, still seeks answers, still seeks retribution, and can’t rest. We are haunted by the past which stalks us so that we never forget it.(source: History.com)
Want to learn more about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…
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More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.